Willem van den Oever's Reviews > The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
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May 15, 12

bookshelves: in-english, thriller-mystery, trenchcoats-and-dames
Read from May 11 to 15, 2012

It’s weird to think Raymond Chandler only turned to writing to make a quick buck while stuck in a time of crisis. Let go as an executive for an oil company, he turned to writing short mystery stories for any pulp magazine that would print his stuff for a penny per word.
Yet whilst reading ‘The Big Sleep’, his first full-length novel, one gets the immediate impression this was a man born to write – and to write for this particular genre. Chandler has a way with words, a way of observing things and of handling dialogue and pacing that very few could match in the past, or can improve on nowadays. Here’s a style and a view on the world that is not only personal but particularly well expressed which lifts his work away from simple, straight-forward entertainment and gives it something more. Though at first glance easily compared to the cheap thrills of other weekly pulp material, here was stuff that was meant to stay, for years to come. Standards were set for a genre with this very book, not just limited to the world of fiction, but movies, tv-shows and videogames.

Within the world of early 1940’s LA that Chandler transports us to from the start of the book, we are introduced to Philip Marlowe, honest private eye, as he comes “calling on four million dollars”. He has an appointment with crippled general Sternwood, a man given the squeeze by a mysterious antiquarian and in need to have the problem disappear. But before he can start building up a case, the blackmailer is killed right in front of Marlowe’s eyes and turns out to be a pornographer who owns material depicting a daughter of the very Sternwood the detective is working for.
From there on, the plot becomes so amazingly twisted and complex, that it’s all too easy for the reader to lose track of what is happening. If one were to criticize Chandler for anything, it would be for his plotting. Rather than crafting a slick, streamlined plot, one gets the impression Chandler was making up the plot as he went along – or was, as his reader would be, equally at a loss where things were precisely heading for.
Making up in spades for that shortcoming is the aforementioned style and class he displays throughout all his works. Whether it’s the tone of dialogue, the descriptions of locations or character study: it doesn’t get any better than this. Though muddy the murder plot may be, every other aspect is crystal clear when Chandler handles it.

And what about Marlowe? It takes some time before one can figure out what kind of a person he is. An observer par excellence – or is it Chandler himself who should deserve that credit? – the lead character hardly reveals anything about himself. When he speaks, he is well-spoken but straight-forward; when he acts or reacts, he can be both cruel and kind. There’s a nonchalance in how he regards the world, and yet he appears deeply moved and hurt by the things that happen around him.
All of that builds up to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, where Marlowe is left alone in his office, pulls a revolver out of his pocket he has just taken away from a woman during a fight and cannot help but smile. Is it a smile that embodies relieve, disbelieve or the confirmation that in the end, the private eye remains in control of the situation, no matter how perilous or twisted a simple case turns out to be?
Equipped with trenchcoat, snubnose and a healthy dose of sarcasm, never turning down a drink or backing out of a confrontation, Marlowe is the P.I. LA needs. In the end, his heart isn’t as cold as one might think at the start. He becomes the indicator, the compass by which matters are judged in terms of right and wrong. Though deeply flawed, mean and maybe too big a fan of alcohol, he is a noble man, more than anything else.
Yet there’s no denying that Marlowe, though clearly a man for his time and place, also seems madly out of place. There would be very few men with this longing for justice or need to seek answers to questions best left alone in the maddening world that Marlowe inhabits in ‘The Big Sleep’. In that way, Marlowe sticks out as much in his field as Chandler does.
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